Ever since the news kicked into high gear somewhere around November 2016, Saturday Night Live has struggled to address it all within the designated political talkback of the cold open sketch. Instead of picking one story and really digging in, the writers have chosen to contrive a situation broad enough to work in three or four major topics.
This week, we open on a nightly news program in Minnesota. Two white anchors (Kate McKinnon and Alex Moffat) struggle to get on the same page as their Black colleagues (Kenan Thompson and Ego Nwodim, Chris Redd popping in as a weatherman on probation) while reporting the trial of Derek Chauvin, the deaths of DMX and Prince Philip, the Matt Gaetz sex scandal and Paul Pierce’s dismissal from ESPN. The read on the stories varies across the racial divide.
The core is sound: they comprehend events the same way but the white newspeople react with measured hopefulness engendered by a life of privilege while their Black equivalents have every reason for cynicism. (“We’ve seen this movie before,” reasons Nwodim, as to why she’s certain Chauvin will walk.) But this disparity isn’t knitted into jokes via a premise, instead just splayed on to the screen. It’s an apt tone-setter for a night that hits its lowest points when attempting cultural commentary over simply harvesting laughs.
Carey Mulligan’s monologue revolves around her perception as a Serious Actress, a recurring theme on a night that sees her stuck in not one but two parodies of the stern-faced drama she’s so used to playing. She facetiously explains that during the pandemic pause on production, she has released her thespian energies on her kids’ bedtime stories, now peopled by pill-popping dragons and grieving princesses learning to live again.
She tries hard but more frequently than not she’s simply not funny, rather than ironically gesturing at her own perceived unfunniness. Case in point: some quick shtick with her husband, Marcus Mumford, popping up but not even goofing on the gimme subject, a bandmate’s recent dismissal in light of the discovery he’s a Republican wingnut.
The next two sketches enliven well-worn templates – the gameshow and the commercial – with absurdism that makes Mulligan look good. In the first, she’s a contestant unable to get the hang of “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”
The out-of-whack element in each image couldn’t be more clear but she and her fellow players pull every other possible answer out of their rotting brains. To wit, an illustration of a doctor delivering a baby beneath a clock with letters instead of numbers yields the response: “The mother only has one leg, baby flew out no problem.” To Mulligan’s credit, she delivers the line with the deadpan commitment that makes the sketch work. Same goes for a faux-ad promoting an IBS medication in which she lays waste to a bathroom during a kids’ music recital that grinds to a halt as everyone reacts in horror to the fecal wreckage. Mulligan has her fun, warning the one witness to “shut the fuck up”.
The night’s finest sketch casts Mulligan and McKinnon as tween classmates preparing to take their relationship to the next level, a thrilling yet terrifying prospect for McKinnon’s barely pubescent boy, Josh. He calls his even nerdier buddy Jason (Aidy Bryant) and that’s where the meat of the sketch lies, as one awkward goofball coaches another through a fumbling hand-holding with the unearned confidence of a pickup artist. The braces-clad Bryant proudly saying, “I doff my cap to you!” is the pure, self-evident strain of comedy that makes the show go.
We then see another of the hip-hop parodies which are seemingly mandatory when a rapper is the musical guest. Kid Cudi joins Pete Davidson and Chris Redd for Weird Little Flute, a trap ode to piccolo samples. It’s a one-joke concept, relying on an out-of-nowhere cameo from Timothee Chalamet. The sketch can only come up with three examples across decades of songs, a limited view underscored by Cudi’s introspective, emotional performances. Performing Tequila Shots through a lattice of blue and red lasers and Sad People while sporting a floral dress – a homage to Kurt Cobain, same goes for his threadbare sweater in the first number – he continues to push his genre in sensitive new directions.
Weekend Update has a fair hit-to-miss ratio, with early zingers about the Gaetz Venmo payments and the boycott of Coca-Cola urged by Donald Trump. Per Michael Che: “I was guessing Don Jr would have the problem with coke!” The guests go two for three, starting with Redd’s Barack Obama and Beck Bennett’s Bruce Springsteen stopping by to share some of the hilariously banal banter they’ve perfected on their podcast. The writing for Pineapple, one of the strippers from Paul Pierce’s video, falls back on tired low-ball stereotypes. (“Stripper brain!” she giggles, on realizing she’s said something stupid.) Best is Bowen Yang as the iceberg that sank the Titanic, a hot-mess celebrity doing a desperate PR-rehab press tour during which he’d rather promote a hyperpop nu-disco album. Between the ridiculous song snippet and the magnificent headpiece, it’s a clear high-water mark for the night.
It’s followed by the lowest valley, a Star Trek spoof in which Mulligan, Mikey Day and Chloe Fineman portray pampered members of Gen Z floundering in the modern workplace. They speak in catchphrases betraying an old person’s idea of a young person, all “literally toxic” this and “stop gaslighting me” that, their faked-for-attention suicide attempts a needlessly nasty punch line. It’s unclear why Saturday Night Live would go out of its way to alienate a market it needs to retain so badly. When the bit ends with the annoying, needy, jargon-spewing twentysomethings shot out of the airlock to die in the frozen vacuum of space, it poses a question: why would anyone tune in to a show where they’re clearly not welcome?
It’s an odd transition for the following sketch, a parody of lesbian period drama seemingly pitched to cinephiles who made Portrait of a Lady on Fire into a sleeper sensation. Mulligan never goes far enough to coax out the silliness. The pseudo-trailer for Satan’s Alley from Tropic Thunder did this better with Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr as monks in a forbidden romance, a clearer goof on such films’ tentatively shed repressions.
Mulligan comports herself a bit better as a dutiful wife writing to her husband at sea in a Ken Burns-esque History Channel show. The joke keeps evolving with Mulligan going from excessive terseness to enclosed cocaine samples to suggesting she may have murdered his parents. It manages the anything-goes looseness endemic to final sketches of the night better than the actual last one, featuring Mulligan and Bryant as hosiery saleswomen trying to hook teens on their label L’eggs. Your enjoyment will depend on whether you see comedy in the flesh-tone sheen of pantyhose.
Mulligan seems relieved at the end. She was an odd fit as host from the jump, and while that has yielded pleasant surprises before, her presence feels more like a plank of her Oscar campaign than anything else. If her quest was to keep her name in voters’ minds while showing she’s fun and good on her feet, mission accomplished.